At first, it appears to be a gimmick. Ballet in the backfield instead of smash-mouth football.
The single-wing offense, an antiquated attack run by a handful of high school programs nationwide, has carried Park View of Sterling to a 12-0 season, a school-record 506 points and a spot in the Virginia AA Division 4 semifinals Saturday against Lafayette of Williamsburg (11-1).
Devised by legendary coach Pop Warner at the beginning of the century when the forward pass was still a new concept, the single wing has vanished as huskier athletes have become prevalent. Princeton was the last major college program to use it, in 1969.
The single wing's effectiveness is determined by an unbalanced line, no true quarterback and several fakes in the backfield. Deception is a key to its success.
"For most teams [that run the single wing], it's not real complicated," said Park View Coach Mickey Thompson, who instituted the system prior to last season. "What makes it complicated is when you run all the facets of the single wing like we do. Some teams run two or three facets, but nobody else runs all the facets of it."
The single wing revolves around a versatile and athletic backfield, and a skilled center who has three options on the snap from center alone. The majority of the snaps go to the fullback, the primary ballcarrier, who can either run, pitch to the quarterback (junior Nick Smith, who has accounted for over 2,000 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns this season) or hand off to his blocking back or wingback. But the quarterback or blocking back can also receive the snap.
"I played [center] in Little League, but when I got here, it was completely different," Patriots center Drew Smith said. "It was like learning a new position. You're not expected to block so much, but you have to make sure that snap is perfect."
Just as important to the fluidity of the single wing is the blocking back, who not only opens holes for the ballcarrier, but is occasionally a decoy.
"I think what's most confusing for defenses is there's a lot of guys going in different directions and the [offensive] backs sometimes have their backs turned to the linebackers," blocking back Joe Larson said.
Its unpredictability is what makes the single wing so difficult to defend. But of course, there needs to be four exceptional athletes in the backfield. That, and its complexities, are why so few teams run the single wing.
"It's not all about stopping the offense," said Thompson, a former defensive tackle at the University of Virginia in his 10th year at Park View. "It's about stopping the players. You have to have talent in the backfield. That's where it all starts. You just need to be athletic, not big. If you're not getting big kids into your program, it's a good system.
"But I think we have an advantage because people don't know us. The first play of the game is always the biggest play for us because we see how [the opposition] lines up against us."
Sometimes--like last year's 42-8 loss to West Potomac in the AAA Division 5 Northern Region final--an opponent guesses right and stops Park View.
"They just put people in the right places that day," Park View fullback Nelson Stickley said. "They got lucky."
Lafayette Coach Dan Antolik is not restructuring his game plan for Park View. His strategy: Look past the way the Patriots package their plays, and break them down to basic calls.
"Teams run inside, outside, traps, counters and reverses," Antolik said. "Everybody runs those the same way. You have to defend the blocking schemes, not the ball."
That is because you may not know where the ball is.